HANOI (Reuters) -A Vietnamese court has sentenced an environmental activist to three years in prison on charges of tax fraud, just days after the government discussed protecting human rights with U.S. President Joe Biden during a state visit.
Hoang Thi Minh Hong, director of an environmental advocacy group that she started in 2013 and ran until 2022, was convicted of tax evasion after trial in Ho Chi Minh City on Thursday that lasted half a day, according to her lawyer Nguyen Van Tu.
“Hong pleaded guilty, and therefore the trial ended quickly,” Tu told Reuters by telephone.
The U.S. State Department said it was “deeply concerned” by the sentencing and reiterated calls on Vietnam to “release all those unjustly detained and to respect the right to freedoms of expression and association.”
The State Department praised the track record of Hong and said leaders like her played “a vital role in tackling global challenges.”
Hong was accused of dodging tax payments worth 6.7 billion dong ($274,488) during the 2012-2022 period, Thanh Nien newspaper cited the indictment as saying.
She was also made to pay a cash fine of 100 million dong, her lawyer said, adding that she has 15 days to decide whether to appeal the verdict.
“This conviction is a total fraud, nobody should be fooled by it,” said Ben Swanton, co-director of The 88 Project charity.
“This is yet another example of the law being weaponised to persecute climate activists who are fighting to save the planet,” he said.
Biden left Vietnam on Sept. 11 after having upgraded diplomatic relations and sealed multiple deals with Hanoi’s leaders, drawing criticism from human rights organisations that accused him of sidelining issues of human rights.
Hong in 1997 became the first Vietnamese to visit Antarctica, was hailed by former U.S. President Barack Obama in 2018 for mobilising “a youth-led movement to create a greener world”, and was awarded a grant from the first Obama Foundation Scholars Program at Columbia University that year.
The Thanh Nien report said Hong expressed her remorse and asked for leniency at the trial so that she could “return and continue to contribute to the society and the country.”
Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Wednesday called on the Vietnam government to drop all charges against Hong and unconditionally release her.
“The Vietnamese authorities are using the vaguely worded tax code as a weapon to punish environmental leaders whom the ruling Communist Party deems a threat to their power,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at HRW.
As of early this month, Vietnam was holding at least 159 political prisoners and was detaining 22 others pending trial, HRW said.
On Sept. 15, Hanoi police detained Ngo Thi To Nhien, executive director of the Vietnam Initiative for Energy Transition, an independent think tank focused on green energy policy. The U.N. human rights office this week raised concerns about the arrest.
($1 = 24,409 dong)
(Reporting by Francesco Guarascio and Khanh Vu; Additional reporting by Kanishka Singh in Washington; Editing by Martin Petty, Simon Cameron-Moore and Daniel Wallis)